Let’s Clear This Up At The Station

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Infernal Affairs (2002) 

The first death in Infernal Affairs arrives an hour into its 110-minute running time. Staging a contest between two organizations filled with violent men, the film builds the anticipation of reprisal not through escalating gunfire but through the sure and unbroken intent of its foes. An early confrontation lays out the rules of engagement, and infuses the prize in question with the promise of reprisal. Antagonists who do not use force lightly, even among their own ranks, have all but agreed to employ it when they reach the goal. In this context the fall from a rooftop springs forth as something unnatural, lacking purpose, and the film lingers on how unsettling it is to the characters themselves, even as the crash rings in our ears.

There’s a reason classical structures leave the body count for Act V, why in life we keep our graves all in one place. Bullets and explosions are loud things, reverberating in our heads, and Infernal Affairs would prefer not to have to shout above the din. Able to proceed at a comfortable volume, the film takes few pauses, even for skepticism. Deceit is appropriate to stop crime and murder, and inappropriate to further it, and Tony Leung’s Yan never really appears to doubt this, even at the plea of a dying colleague who has stayed loyal to him. His experience is difficult, and he has earned the reprieve of normality, but he enters the film’s closing stretch more wistful than angry. In handcuffing Lau, “by the book,” he revels in the opportunity to conduct himself as a regular employee.

Outcomes connect directly to the care taken to achieve them, not moral deserts, and even Hon Sam, the main villain, ascribes his success to luck, pursuing further gains with care. He does not believe the way things have happened thus far mean anything about what lies ahead. The women at the edge of the story take notice of what happens, but good and evil is not being fought out in their hearts and allegiances, and their lives are not battlegrounds, not the least because justice isn’t a thing to be “won” in Infernal Affairs, even if fates can be controlled. Lau’s own outcome makes quite clear the difference. Content to conclude without needing to deliver a final verdict, the film’s depth of confidence stands wholly undiminished, even after being recast for American audiences as an operatic spectacle. The stakes were never that high. A bad man escapes immediate punishment, but though characters tell many stories in Infernal Affairs, the one we hear about good and evil never gets an ending.

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